Listen, you know your Aunt Sheri loves a good riff. My biggest influences are Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson! Riffing, running, licking, turning—these are common terms for what I’m about to discuss with you. Riffs are a very valuable form of expression and they must be handled with care! So here are five tips for riffing at pop/rock auditions that are gonna make you look like a real pro!
1. What is a riff? Historically, vocal “riffing” is a musical idea or rhythmic figure that comes from jazz music. You may recognize other fun terms like “melisma,” or “vocal gymnastics.” But a “run,” for example, is when a singer starts off at a very high note and drops quickly through the scale down to a very low note in the space of a second or two. It can also be done from a low note to a high note. Christina Aguilera does this a ton! Riffs, runs, licks, and turns are simply melodic notes added by the singer to enhance the expression and emotional intensity of the song.
2. Study those who are known for riffing. In “Adele: The Biography,” the British singer is quoted: “I taught myself how to sing by listening to Ella Fitzgerald for acrobatics and scales, Etta James for passion, and Roberta Flack for control.” If you want to learn how to riff, you have to listen to the greats.
These are great voices, with total reverence and respect towards history. What do you think, for example, listening to Fitzgerald, James, and Flack would do to your voice? You’d get very different results than Adele, but equally spectacular.
3. Look at the show for which you’re auditioning and identify if riffing is in the palette of music. For example, there’s no riffing in “American Idiot.” There was one riff that Alysha Umphress had, but it was written for her. The style is straight tone. There’s no riffing in “American Psycho.” It’s ’80s synthesized pop. There is riffing in shows like “Brooklyn the Musical” or even “Rent,” but it’s definitely not the same riffing you do in “Memphis” and “Beautiful.” The riffing is very modest and simple here, because the ’50s and ’60s were a very conservative, innocent time.
4. Be tasteful when it comes to riffing. Don’t riff on something that doesn’t call for it. Leave it alone and riff on something else that has riffing in it. All creative teams want to hear is that you canriff when you sing popular music, and you understand how to use it and when. The reason why an Aretha Franklin riff is different than a Joni Mitchell riff which is different than an Earth, Wind & Fire riff, or why there is practically no riffing in ’80s pop/rock music is because of what was going on socially, politically, and emotionally in the world at the time. And trust me: You look so cool when you know, respect, and celebrate the world that your music lives in!
5. So, can there be just one lick or one run in a place of emotional release? It really is all you need! Don’t add a riff in at the end because you want to show your range or that you can riff. Choose a song where a riff already exists and put your own spin on it. Riffing is a piece of the puzzle we call “your singing voice” and, of course we want to hear it, but it must be present along with all the other “pieces” of your singing abilities. Qualities like straight toning, having multiple influences like folk, rock, gospel, and blues, for example! Not to mention being emotional when you sing. These things make you a very competitive singer in the world of popular musicals!